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Movie Review: The Band Wagon (1953)

Only in director Vincente Minnelli’s lavish and unique 1953 movie musical The Band Wagon, based on a stage musical and rewritten for the screen, does the audience get Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dancing to an adaptation of a Mickey Spillane novel within an adaptation choreographed by Michael Kidd, with a cast including Ava Gardner as herself, Julie Newmar in a ballet, pianist and composer Oscar Levant as Nanette Fabray’s husband, James Mitchell of All My Children and Oklahoma! and a character playing the Devil that’s based on Jose Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac).

In The Band Wagon, all of this comes in addition to the world’s greatest dancer in motion pictures singing as an actor playing a baby triplet.

The Band Wagon is this blend of zany, colorful and over-the-top depictions of show business. Incidentally, it’s also where the song “That’s Entertainment”—which spawned three grand Hollywood documentaries and became the movie industry’s unofficial theme song, capturing the spirit of Hollywood’s Golden Age—originates. If The Band Wagon sounds rollicking, that’s because it is—and seeing it for the first time, as I recently did, with movie buffs who know all the lines and places to laugh (at TCM’s Classic Film Festival 2016) is somewhat disorienting—but, like the mid-century America the movie inextricably represents, The Band Wagon mixes everything to arrive at an original climax, point and theme.

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With screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green and Mr. Minnelli’s visual and musical flourish and nerve, producer Arthur Freed, who similarly peeked behind the scenes of early Hollywood in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), depicts Broadway’s manic process to excess with everyone traipsing around singing, dancing, saying, proposing and doing ridiculous things in order to coax a fading movie star (enchanting Fred Astaire, as accessible and elegant as ever) and a ballerina (lovely Cyd Charisse in an acting, not merely dancing, role) to put on an opulent and preposterous stage show.

As the backers, visionaries and players get skewered, with an impossible and increasingly dubious show heading for disaster, everyone goes along on The Band Wagon to make the serious point that putting on a show, contrary to claims that the musical is unrealistic and frivolous, is an act of daring. Integration of singin’ and dancin’ with abstractions and themes poses a real risk to talented and sensitive artists and demanding investors.

This is the play as an enterprise. Fortunes, careers, lives, reputations and relationships may be staked on one, massive show in a grand production and it can fail and fail dismally.

So goes The Band Wagon, with neurotic characters Lily and Lester (Fabray and Levant), an easily bruised ballerina (Charisse), intense leading man (Astaire) and diva director whose name even sounds like an aspirant of the theeuh-tuh, Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who strives to stage a musical show based on Faust.

Like the opening’s blinding, shining silver Santa Fe railcars—the movie poster proclaims: “Get Aboard”—the movie barrels, bends and zips by with power, light and excitement. Fred Astaire’s legendary dance in “A Shine on Your Shoes” with a shoeshine vendor (the delightful and uncredited Leroy Daniels) in a train station sets an energetically nervy yet effortless pace and tone. With songs by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, including “Dancing in the Dark” and the stirring, all-American “That’s Entertainment”, the company keeps stopping, pausing and starting up the vehicle. Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse give the play-within-a-play its tension, bringing the plot to a low boil in a grinding routine styled on Mickey Spillane’s The Girl Hunters featuring his private detective Mike Hammer, “The Girl Hunt Ballet,” choreographed by Michael Kidd.

It’s a brilliant number.

All keeps running in constant motion and The Band Wagon skips and sputters with musicality, inviting sets, costumes, make up and eye-popping production numbers, from the first song and dance to the last. It’s hard not to notice the widespread influence of this MGM musical on Hollywood and the entertainment industry, from incarnations of Grease to versions of Batman and Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”. But the deliberately, brilliantly mixed musical The Band Wagon, balanced by the masterful Fred Astaire, who was underappreciated as an actor and singer, carries as its treasured cargo a gradual awakening of an older gentleman who chooses to reshape his whole life with a new act, taking everyone along for the ride.

Springtime Festivals

This spring, two annual festivals caught my attention. The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at University of Southern California (USC) is always interesting for its literary lectures, panels and appearances. I usually learn about new stories, books and publishing deals, trade trends and developments and run into someone I know or want to know and this year was no exception. I learned about everything from new literary journals and adapting Greek plays to new small publishers, printers for self-published books and blogs, resources and programs for writers.

FOBooksUSC2016The Festival of Books panels, in particular, can get pretentious as writers and editors share their thoughts from the ivory tower and some of the comments reinforce that today’s dominant intellectuals are disconnected—some knowingly—from audiences and reality. For instance, a dramatic arts dean at the university, a published author, admitted that he hadn’t read the play he was adapting. He added that he’d read it once decades ago but seemed oddly proud of his not having studied and mastered his topic, as if this was the point of adaptation; to evade the cause of the work. Others rambled and most speakers at the panel discussions talked as if everyone was familiar with every term, work and literary reference, though moderators tried to keep them grounded in communicating with a wide, general audience.

Listening to writers talk about writing makes me think about better habits, tools and techniques and the event offers an opportunity to meet other writers, editors and publishers. For some of my contracted projects, it’s especially helpful to know about new producers in the market at any point in the writing-to-publishing process. So, overall, I’m glad I went.

Turner Classic Movies hosts a classic movie festival in Hollywood every year, which I attended for the first time in 2015 and again this spring (read my roundup of 2015’s event here and a preview of 2016’s festival here). The panels are, perhaps not surprisingly, less pretentious than the book festival’s, though I found myself wanting more of the exchanges than some of the brief interviews and panels delivered, though Faye Dunaway’s interview was extensive and the star of Network, The Towering Inferno and The Thomas Crown Affair was thoughtful and gracious (more on this later).

ClubTCMBWA panel discussion on journalism and movies with writers, editors and a producer, which I wrote about for LA Screenwriter (read my report here), could have lasted another 45 minutes and I would have stayed. TCM’s panel, which was moderated by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, a TV journalist earlier in his career, included writer/director James Vanderbilt (Truth), Oscar-winning writer Josh Singer (Spotlight), broadcast news producer and author Mary Mapes (portrayed in Truth by Cate Blanchett) and journalist/editor Ben Bradlee, Jr., portrayed by John Slattery in Spotlight—Bradlee was partly responsible for managing the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, the subject of Spotlight, which won 2015’s Oscar for Best Picture.

This year, I was able to see at least one past Best Picture Oscar winner on the big screen as with last year’s screened classic movies—Too Late for Tears (1949) with Lizabeth Scott, Gunga Din (1939), Malcolm X (1992), Viva Zapata! (1952), So Dear to My Heart (1949) and The Sound of Music (1965)—and this one, Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 hit Rocky, was a film I had never seen in any format. Read the reviews, which include notes on accompanying festival interviews where applicable, either on The New Romanticist or here on the blog as available. So far, besides Rocky, I’ve reviewed Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) with Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood (1991) with Cuba Gooding, Jr., Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) with Marlene Dietrich and Elia Kazan’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) with Dorothy Maguire. I’ve added a review of The Virginian (1946) starring Joel McCrea, which recently screened at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, too, and there are a few more reviews to come (of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), The Band Wagon (1953) and I’ve Always Loved You (1946).

Additionally, I plan to post a roundup of 2016’s TCM Classic Film Festival, themed this time to “Moving Pictures”, including coverage of other lectures, interviews and related news, such as TCM’s new fan club, Backlot, and its new streaming partnership with the Criterion Collection. ‘Like’ my Facebook page for regularly posted mini-reviews of films on TCM’s lineup.

For live instruction, evaluation and discussion of movies, books and media, and studious breakdown of the writing process, feel free to attend my classes if you’re in Los Angeles this summer. Space is limited for updated courses on social media (read more and register here) and Writing Boot Camp (read more and register here) in Burbank. If you want help with a project and you’re unable to attend, let me know (I can probably help by phone, FaceTime or Skype). Otherwise, read the monthly newsletter for tips, tools and thoughts. Look for new reviews, articles and stories to come.

Movie Review: Rocky (1976)

Pictures of man in motion, discipline and hero worship lift Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky to fulfillment of its theme. Screened at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theater for a 40th anniversary showing featuring an interview with co-star Talia Shire (read my thoughts on the interview after this review) at the TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 on Hollywood Boulevard, Rocky inspires the audience. The 1976 motion picture is intimate, like 1955’s Marty with Ernest Borgnine, small and naturalistic, not romanticist in the highest sense. Yet Mr. Stallone’s low budget, independent-type United Artists movie, like 1993’s Rudy with Sean Astin, depicts with brains and vigor a mythical figure: the self-made sportsman.

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Having never seen Rocky, or its sequels, I was well aware of its reputation, lines and movie star. TCM’s guide, too, describes it as a boxing movie, which doesn’t capture its essence. “Yo, Adrian” came to be mocked for some reason I never understood. So did Rocky‘s success; the character’s, the movie’s and the film series’. When Sylvester Stallone was talked up for a supporting actor Oscar this year, I correctly guessed that he would not win, though I knew that Rocky is the role for which the movie star staked his career and fortune.

When Rocky appeared on TCM’s schedule, I looked forward to finally seeing this seminal movie 40 years after it was made. Now that I’ve seen it, a lot of the hype and backlash makes sense. Though it’s a sports movie, Rocky’s more like a Western in some ways; the hero is an individualist who takes ownership of his domain. He is solitary. He has no family. Rocky rides alone. In this sense, Rocky is perfect for 1976, when feminism began to erode man-woman relationships, leading to emasculation of the American male. Rocky acts like a cowboy—like an American—like a man. Rocky doesn’t choose someone conventional. He picks his partner based on what he sees in her. He wants her. He courts her, he asks for her and he earns, and takes, her. So I see now that reducing their relationship to “Yo, Adrian” is a smear against man as a heroic being.

I also see now that Rocky, directed by John Avildsen, is a great Philadelphia movie, like 1993’s Philadelphia and 1940’s The Philadelphia Story, and it’s not just about the scenery and the steps. More on that later.

Philadelphia’s cold, gritty grayness serves as the wet, dark depth from which Rocky Balboa (Mr. Stallone, magnificent in every scene) rises. In the film’s first part, Rocky faces reality. At 30 years old, with bulging muscles from boxing, sad, brown eyes and a habit of alcohol and cigarettes to ease his pain and possibly his guilt from working as a mobster, he’s on his way to becoming a thug and he knows it. Coming home to a poster of his hero, legendary boxer Rocky Marciano, Rocky Balboa looks at an old photo of himself as a boy, gazes into the mirror and ponders whether he is, as sour fans call him after an opening bout, a “bum.”

It’s a legitimate concern. But there’s evidence to the contrary, too. Besides sneaking an occasional smoke, nursing an occasional drink, losing an occasional match, there’s something else about Rocky, who walks the streets at night, knows everybody in the neighborhood, goes easy on his shakedown targets and has a fondness for turtles, goldfish and puppies. He’s a hero worshipper, with Marciano’s chiseled body as the god of Rocky’s home—as against the portrait of Jesus Christ hanging at the gym—he’s kind and intelligent, which everyone around seems to sense, know and like about him, and, deep down, Rocky Balboa takes pride in himself.

It’s in his walk, when he struts around dark corners, greeting neighbors. It’s in his trade, when he enters a pet shop and flirts with the cashier, in whom he sees a quality he values. It’s in his talk, when he singles out a tough girl and delivers a stern lesson in the importance of earning one’s reputation—Rocky‘s first crucial transition to an extraordinary tale of a self-made man. Rocky walks the girl around the ‘hood, taking the wayward youth on a journey back home, where she thanks him, having been unhinged from clannishness and at least for now restored to a natural, decent state of being an individual who’s capable of standing alone.

This is a small scene, seemingly innocuous, but it marks a critical moment of the man’s self-awareness. It’s as if Rocky realizes in giving that speech that he’s infected with the mind-body dichotomy, not practicing in reality what he preaches in theory, living by example to the opposite of what he instructs the street kid. By now, the audience knows that Rocky likes being alive—he teems with life and, even when he’s down, it’s because he’s sad about something unfulfilled, not in pity for himself—and his love for life is ready to be (re)born. The audience—and this is why the movie earned 1976’s top spot and won Best Picture—is in on the heroism; a picture of man, machine and bridge, carrying a train, car and athlete all in forward motion, gets it going. So, too, does Bill Conti’s epic score.

Soon, the inner conflict gets an outer conflict to match, with world heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) looking for a new means to profit from his work. As Rocky is inwardly American, Creed is outwardly American, exploiting the Uncle Sam persona, the nation’s Bicentennial, even General Washington’s crossing the Delaware River, shamelessly engaging in greedy promotionalism and inviting Rocky Balboa to box for the championship title as a uniquely American match. Equally greedy for an opportunity to prove himself in the arena, Rocky accepts.

But, knowing he’s a man not a boy and beginning his realignment, Rocky persuades the pet shop cashier, whose name is Adrian (Talia Shire), to date, yielding another interesting character contrast. As Rocky has grown his body to the exclusion of developing his mind, Adrian has clearly done the opposite. Both are variations on the mind-body dichotomy; each embodies the disowned self—which both through mutual commitment choose to reclaim. He takes her ice skating, where she first sees him fail but not before she sees him try. The later scene in which he reaches up while she visits his home for the first time, taunting and tempting her with his sexuality, seals their gaps. This causes a problem for Rocky’s pal and Adrian’s brother/paternal figure Paulie (Burt Young), who faces his own transformation, and it’s game on.

Enter the old man, in this case a 76-year-old trainer named Mickey Goldmill played by the late Burgess Meredith, who, in one scene in which he pleads for the job and seeks to redeem himself for an earlier rejection of Rocky, masterfully begins the retraining even as he walks away. This is a beautifully shot scene in which both men accept reality, come to terms and trade. They do so in a handshake—not a fistbump—while the train keeps moving on. Training, too, keeps moving, as Rocky downs raw eggs for protein to promote muscle growth.

As he does, and this is why the remarkable Rocky is not really about boxing, Rocky gets better, Adrian gets better, life improves and the world opens. As Rocky trains, jogs, conditions, sweats and expends effort, the neighborhood literally comes to life, with Conti’s theme piping through as fires burn bright. Whomever wins, it’s dawn in America, at least in America’s first capital, as Rocky prepares to box Apollo. In fact, to paraphrase Vince Lombardi, it’s wanting to win that matters. In this sense, Rocky—who looks in the mirror and conducts one more essential reality check before the bout, explicitly naming terms to himself—wins by going the distance, letting himself learn by letting go of what he can’t control that remaking his life for his own sake is the highest reward.

By the end, he is bloody but unbowed, as William Ernest Henley wrote, and he is triumphant by thinking and acting on principle—observe his breakdown of the concept southpaw as proof that he grasps that his mind and body are one—and, come what may, there is his woman, wearing red in another key scene and similarly remade and rejuvenated. “Adrian!!” is both his final and first call in triumph.

Rocky goes out on top.


Speaking at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on April 30, 2016 at TCM Classic Film Festival 2016, actress Talia Shire (The Godfather), who played Adrian in director John Avildsen’s Rocky, insistently and rightly gave full credit to Hollywood’s unsung Sylvester Stallone.

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Talia Shire being interviewed at TCM Classic Film Festival 2016. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

Shire, whose brother and Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola was honored at the festival with a handprint ceremony in the historic theater’s forecourt, repeated the legend of Mr. Stallone’s achievement: that Sylvester Stallone declined offers for his script, did not let his property go, and insisted that producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff cast him in the title role. Rocky‘s location shots were illegally directed without government permission, as is widely known, and the movie went on to win Oscar’s Best Picture and led to six sequels, including last year’s Creed, in which Mr. Stallone reprised his Rocky role.

Talia Shire recalled that Burgess Meredith set a good example for the cast and crew and was “full of creative joy.” Sylvester Stallone was, she said, “larger than life.” She added with reverence that he was “very sensitive” and was single-minded in his conviction that “something extraordinary was being made”.

Movie Review: Boyz N The Hood (1991)

The power and pull of the thug, hip-hop life in South Central Los Angeles is depicted with intimacy and sobriety in 1991’s Boyz N the Hood, writer and director John Singleton’s autobiographical movie, which I saw at a 25th anniversary screening in Hollywood at the TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 (read about the festival here and my report on the creator’s interview after the review).

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With a father named Furious Styles (Laurence, billed as Larry, Fishburne) and divorced mother Reva (Angela Bassett, Malcolm X) who thinks fatherhood is more important at a critical stage for her growing son, Tre (Desi Arnez Hines II as a child; Cuba Gooding, Jr. as a teen) faces the ultimate endurance test: to learn, grow and survive in LA’s hip-hop underbelly. Celebrating if not entirely glorifying rap, thug or hip hop culture, Singleton frames his coming of age plot with these two strong, distinctive parents in his movie debut.

The device works well in setting the context for Tre’s character development, which lies at the center of this culturally influential film. By depicting two types of parents on two different tracks in the world, yet with this child in common, the conflict over what choices Tre will make during the course of his childhood comes into sharper focus. As Tre’s life in the ghetto—which, with incessant helicopters over small houses on small lots with green lawns, looks and sounds like any other part of suburban Los Angeles—gets exciting, dangerous and complicated, Tre’s father’s and mother’s examples and lessons go against the culture.

One of the most effective aspects of Boyz N the Hood is its ability to depict Tre’s growth with multiple, simultaneous outcomes; his affiliation with thugs (i.e., actor Ice Cube’s gangster Doughboy), jocks (i.e., Morris Chestnut’s footballer Ricky) and a Catholic girl (Nia Long), thanks to Gooding’s strong performance, generates tension and suspense. The audience sits with this chronic uncertainty, which is what growing up in South Central feels like for Tre. The thrill of hip hop with its booming music and cars, the promise of earned opportunities through good choices, hard work and rational self-interest, the burgeoning, mixed and contradictory acceptance of black urban subculture in Southern California—all figure into the potent climax.

Eviscerating stereotypes with a leading male character who expresses his fear, pain, anger, sensuality and, more than anything else, confusion, Singleton recreates a pivotal passage of thug life with realism and elements of romanticism. Tre cries, runs, yells, swaggers, shuttles and moves like no other black man in previous movies. Boyz N the Hood is too naturalistic and therefore agnostic about the tragedies, near-triumphs and hollowed out cases of despair to make a lasting and thematic impact. The score is too much.

But its convergence and contrast of the pop-pop-pop of hip hop—everywhere around the world today 25 years after it was released with insidious street codes sup, waddup and aiight feeding off its death premise and spreading the worship—with Furious Styles’ guidance through fatherhood, urging his son to look a man in the eye and think before you speak, make Boyz N the Hood a singularly downbeat drama which puts modern American culture into wider context.


Writer and director Singleton appeared in a Chinese Theater at Hollywood & Highland for TCM Classic Film Festival 2016‘s 25th anniversary screening of Boyz N the Hood. He was interviewed by movie historian Donald Bogle, whom Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Chiraq) once described as the “most noted Black-cinema historian.” Bogle, author of Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Brown Sugar: Over A Hundred Years of America’s Black Female Superstars, also was one of TCM’s commentators for its seven-part documentary series on the history of Hollywood, 2010’s Moguls and Movie Stars. He has curated retrospectives on Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge and he teaches at both the University of Pennsylvania and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

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Donald Bogle interviews John Singleton about Boyz N the Hood in Hollywood. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran

Bogle’s interview with John Singleton about Boyz N the Hood was a festival highlight. The Oscar-winning director and writer discussed his approach, his education and his goal to make “the best hip hop movie ever” which he arguably did, though he’s also made Poetic Justice (1993) and Hustle and Flow (2005). Recalling how he took the bus from South Central Los Angeles as a child to Hollywood and Highland to see “blaxploitation” pictures with black stars such as Pam Grier, Singleton described himself as an especially intelligent and intense youth. He said he’d watch movies without the sound on to study technique and explained that, during his education at University of Southern California (USC), he watched and studied contemporary and classic films such as The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980). That informs the realism of his Boyz N the Hood.

But, with Bogle, whom the filmmaker clearly respects, Singleton went into detail. He talked about using a shot inspired by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, his deep concern about what he describes as black on black crime and an astute observation that most Hollywood movies depict black parents as older than they, in his experience, are, and thus deciding to cast the younger Fishburne-Bassett team as Tre’s parents, a decision that adds to the film’s credibility and potency. John Singleton also admitted to being scared on his first day of shooting, introspecting and providing himself with positive self-talk, such as looking out at the fog coming off the Pacific Ocean into Inglewood during production, which permitted the then-23-year-old to recreate in his mind the childhood upon which his movie is based, telling himself: “You can do this.” Singleton’s can-do individualism is evident 25 years later in Boyz N the Hood.

 

Movie Review: Shanghai Express (1932)

Civil war provides the context for Universal’s Shanghai Express (1932), Josef von Sternberg’s pre-Code star vehicle for his wife, actress Marlene Dietrich, which screened last week at the Chinese Theaters at TCM’s 2016 Classic Film Festival (read more on the festival here and scroll down for a note on the program). This Depression-era box office hit offers 82 minutes of strange, lavish costumes and pictures and sinister acts based upon a 1923 event on the Peking-Shanghai railroad line.

The fourth of six movies teaming Dietrich with Von Sternberg features better style than substance, though Shanghai Express, centrally the story of a fallen woman (Dietrich, of course) redeeming herself for the man she loves, broadly stands for romanticism against cynicism in the wartime Orient. Moviegoers may recognize Warner Oland, the Swedish actor who played the title character in 16 Charlie Chan movies, as one of the passengers.

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“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily,” Dietrich’s slick, mysteriously overdressed passenger tells her ex-lover, played by Clive Brook, in one of the crackling lines by screenwriter Jules Furthman (based on a story by Harry Hervey) before returning to her compartment with an equally mysterious companion played by Anna May Wong. German expressionist Josef von Sternberg tracks the entire picture to Dietrich’s relationship with Brook’s British military surgeon, who’s taking the train to perform brain surgery on a high-ranking Chinese government official.

After government officials seize a top rebel agent on the express, anti-government bandits halt the train, which is then commandeered by a warlord who kidnaps the surgeon for a prisoner exchange with the Chinese. None of this is especially clear in Shanghai Express, which includes among its passengers an opium dealer, an old hag with a boarding house and a smuggled little dog, a Christian missionary, a gambler, a French major and a mysterious Eurasian named Henry Chang. None of them warm to the two painted ladies down the hall and each has his own motives.

But from the moment the old woman smuggles the dog onto the express in “Peiping” (the Chinese city now known as Beijing has had several English language incarnations) and Marlene Dietrich’s seductive, androgynous traveler slowly draws the shades of her dark, shared compartment, the sexual Shanghai Express is about her, her gal and her ex-lover and what her Shanghai Lily might be willing to do for love.

The train clicks, rolls and steams, as passengers size one another up and down, with satire of British imperialist culture and not before the plot turns with rape, murder and a thematic device tipping that war robs lovers of precious seconds. As one character warns in the highly and memorably stylized Shanghai Express: “Time and life have no value in [wartime] China.”


Director Josef von Sternberg’s son, Nicholas von Sternberg, graciously talked about his father and stepmother, Marlene Dietrich, with Turner Classic Movies writer Jeremy Arnold (author of TCM’s The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter) during the pre-world premiere restoration interview at TCM’s 2016 Classic Film Festival. He confirmed that Von Sternberg added the “von” in 1921 and explained that Shanghai Express was the couple’s most commercially successful motion picture. But Nicholas von Sternberg, who also had kind words for Marlene Dietrich, pointed out that his father’s exhaustive effort—his application of techniques using different planes of focus on the foreground, the middleground and the background, for instance—earned Josef von Sternberg the nickname “Midnight Joe” for long nighttime hours of filming. The director’s son said that one shot in Shanghai Express which was filmed in Morocco took 90 takes.